Buy This Now: ‘Groove Coaster’ Review

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I’ve been sitting with Groove Coaster for about a week now, trying to figure out if it’s just really, really good or one of the best iOS games I’ve ever played. The reason this determination has been difficult is because, on the face of it, Groove Coaster‘s a relatively straightforward rhythm game. You know the kind: music plays, colored prompts show up and the player presses an input in sync with the tune to score points.

The reach of rhythm games changed dramatically with the impact of Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles. When those games started making money, music companies and bands weren’t spurning the advances of game-makers anymore. The Plastic Instrument Era saw its associated franchises building back-catalogs of pop hits and garage rock, along with discographies from legends like the Beatles. Through all of that though, the presentation of the experience never changed all that much. Sure, the character models got better and crowd reactions improved, but the notes in a GH, RB or other similar game flew down the screen at you in the same manner. Attempts to port the genre to mobile devices looked almost exactly the same.

(MORE: Activision Claims Guitar Hero’s Not Dead, Just Sleeping)

But Groove Coaster works a particular kind of magic that’s almost entirely in the presentation. Presentation–the visual and audio elements that make up a game–can be a tricky business, because the way a game looks and sounds can obscure what’s really important, which is how it plays.

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Groove Coaster
impresses in the way it makes the screen feel like a window into three-dimensional space. Where the familiar “highway” that the notes in Guitar Hero and Rock Band travel on is static, Groove Coaster makes players’ eyes follow an undulating line that loops and spikes across the display. Not only does the track curve in and around itself, your finger motions will go beyond simple tapping. You’ll be scratching and flicking for certain prompts, which becomes more challenging with the camera changes.

(MORE: Review: Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP)

Those camera changes come as the most startling thing about this downloadable, and they’re aided by the iOS game’s clean visual language. Groove Coaster‘s vector graphics simultaneously look nostalgic and futuristic, recalling arcade classics like Tempest, console cult hits like Rez and the neon-drenched sets of Blade Runner. It probably helps that lead designer Reisuke Ishida last worked on Space Invaders: Infinity Gene. The graphics already throb in time with the songs and you can unlock different visual effects as you progress making the whole thing as psychedelic as you want.

The music is of the Japanese pop-electronica variety, with 17 tracks playable at first and two more available for purchase. Groove Coaster‘s sound mixing provides one of the game’s signature tricks, which is constantly switching up which part of the instrumentation you’re interacting with. You may start off a song by tapping in the drum track, but once you get used to that, it switches to a horn riff. The effect this has is to make you actually feel like you’re making the music that you’re playing on top of.

So where do I wind up on Groove Coaster? Simply put, it’s brilliant and stands as one of the best titles currently available for Apple’s iDevices. Everything in the game’s so tightly and expertly bound together that it transports you instantly into its experience. The release deconstructs the typical rhythm game experience and rebuilds it with new ideas that open up possibilities for the entire genre. Best of all, Groove Coaster is only 99 cents until this coming Sunday, making it a ridiculous bargain for such a great game.

Techland Score: 9.7 out of 10

(MORE: The Day the Music Died: Activision Kills “Guitar Hero” Franchise)

Evan Narcisse is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @EvNarc or on Facebook at Facebook/Evan.Narcisse. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.